Raven looked over at the young Elder that seemed to cause a rare difference of opinion between the two twins.
“Isn’t he a bit too . . . young to be an Elder?” she asked in a low voice.
“You bet!” exclaimed Martin in a not so low voice, causing a few students to look their way. Coughing slightly he continued, more silently this time, “he’s only nineteen!”
“Then how come he’s an Elder? Even in Earth Empire, most academies only let you graduate at eighteen, right?”
“Well, first off, he’s a Healer Spiritualist which means his focus in cultivation is on control of spirit essence rather than strength,” said Lark and shot a keen glance at Elder Willow. “Just like with the girls here, Healers generally advance in control a lot faster than us Martial Spiritualist. According to rumor, Elder Willow was such a fast learner that, a few years ago, there came a point in when none of the Elders at his Academy could teach him anything! So, they asked him if he wanted to join them as an Elder and help teach the other students instead. It’s quite impressive, right?”
‘He is even better than his academy’s headmaster? That ought to be at least a high Champion level . . . interesting!’ thought Raven as she nodded slightly.
“Right, because a male Healer is so amazing,” said Martin sarcastically and rolled his eyes.
“Then what is a female Martial Spiritualist – a joke?” countered Raven before she could resist it.
Lark grinned approvingly while Martin blinked a few times in confusion. While he was searching for the words to refute Raven with, all students had already collected a box and taken their seats; the same groupings from before were still present and the male dominated groups had ended up the furthest away from Raven.
“Alright,” Elder Willow’s voice filled the courtyard once more, “before we get started, I would like to introduce myself to those of you who might not have met me yet.” He gazed over all the boys in the class. “My name is Myrtus Willow and I’m one of the exchange Elders from Earth Empire. Since last year, I have been teaching Spirit Control at the Healing Department here and from now on I will be in charge of this class as well. I know some of you might have doubts concerning my age . . .” Raven noticed him briefly looking over at her, challengingly, “but I assure you that you will find my teaching beneficial.”
‘Ho, he heard me?’ Raven smiled internally, ‘I get the feeling he found the comment ironic coming from me.’
“If you have any doubts about my abilities after this lesson, feel free to report it to Headmaster Swan.”
“We wouldn’t dream of it,” echoed the girls in unison, causing more boys than just Martin to roll his eyes.
Elder Willow seemed a bit amused by the commotion but suddenly his demeanor grew serious as he started his lecture; “Up until now, Control Class has been about inner control of your spirit essence. While such control is vital for how quickly you can prepare a Divine Skill, without sufficient control over your essence once it leaves your body, the effect of most Divine Skills will drop drastically. This is especially the case for Healing Skills.”
He paused and summoned a globe of visible spirit essence into his palm. The globe then separated into dussins of smaller globes that started flying around him in intricate patterns. Raven focused her attention on the globes.
‘This seems similar to the process described in the Spacial Dash for creating an incorporeal body. . . .’
Elder Willow waved his hand and the globes floated out among the children and landed on their boxes. “With sufficient control you can make your spirit essence take a nearly physical form, even without using a Divine Skill.” He snapped his fingers causing the globes to simultaneously click open the small latches that had kept the boxes closed.
‘So much theatrics,’ thought Raven, amused; as far as she could tell, all that hand waving and finger snapping was totally unnecessary – spirit essence was controlled with the mind, not the body.
“Unfortunately, there are major limits to what you can do with you spirit essence without a Divine Skill, but it is good training nonetheless.” The globes floated back to Elder Willow and were absorbed into his palm. “In the boxes you will find an instrument to help you train; lift them out and bind with the ring you find.”
Shuffling noises filled the air as the children hoisted the instruments out of their boxes. Raven studied the contraption with genuine interest. It looked like a crystalline material had been stretched into a thick wire that then twisted around itself in a maze-like manner. Resting at one end of the wire was a deep black ring. As she let a drop of blood fall from her finger onto the black ring, she felt it pulling out some of her spirit essence to form a glowing sphere around it. As she willed it, the sphere moved upwards along the wire, bringing the ring with it. It was harder to move the sphere than Raven had expected, but it was definitely manageable.
“Your task is to move the ring from one end of the wire to the other, within one minute,” explained Elder Willow as he used an unclaimed instrument to demonstrate. His black ring flowed effortlessly along the wire as the latter twisted in and out of itself. It took him less than thirty seconds to complete the course.
“Looks easy enough,” said the boy named Robin and started to slowly move his ring with, what to Raven seemed like herculean effort, shrouded by his overflowing confidence. As the ring approached the first turn in wire, Robin didn’t lower its speed and the ring clinked into contact with the wire. The instrument hissed loudly and Robin yelped as the ring snapped back to its original position. The girls burst out in giggles at his outburst.
“What was that!?” he shouted in shock; “my spirit essence had been drained!”
“If you would let me finish . . . ,” sighed the young Elder. “The hardest part will be to avoid touching the wire; any slightest contact will cause the ring to return to the starting position and the wire will drain some of your spirit essence. This in turn making the sphere harder to control on your next attempt. The first student to complete this task will receive 100 merit points, the second 50. Anyone who manages to complete it today will get an additional 100 points.”
The students in the class gasped and an exited murmur spread through the courtyard; 200 merit points was the same amount that the victors of the bimonthly Lunar Trial would get. It would go far resource-wise at the academy, and was also a fifth of what you needed if you wished to attempt becoming an Advanced Student – it was not a guarantee that you’d get accepted, but you would be allowed to try.
“You may begin.”
Elder Willow had a mischievous spark in his eyes as he instructed the students to start. The additional 100 points were not something he intended to give out today, it was only a trap to make the kids more excited and therefore make it harder for them to concentrate. He wanted them to learn the difficulties of essence control the hard way.
All the students started to manically focus on their spheres of spirit essence and after a bit of struggling, the Rings within them started to move. However it didn’t take long before buzzing sounds filled the courtyard like a swarm of angry bees. Within thirty minutes every child had beads of sweat rolling down their foreheads and were panting heavily. Not one had made it past the first three bends of the wire.
“Argh! This is impossible!” grunted Martin and threw himself backwards onto the ground.
The sudden noise caused most of the other students to lose the little concentration they had mustered and several rings snapped back at once. Everyone sighed in frustration.
“Not so cocky now, are you, Slave?” Robin was quick to comment when he noticed that Raven looked just as tired as the rest of them. Perhaps even a bit more so.
Raven ignored him and continued moving her ring slowly forward.
“What? No comeback?” laughed Robin’s friend.
“Quiet,” ordered Elder Willow, whom had been strolling around the courtyard giving occasional advice, “Spirit Control is all about concentration and practice. Don’t waste your time babbling.” He reached the area where Raven and her friends were seated and froze.
“Junior Night, you have removed the binding to your ring.” He didn’t say it like a question but he clearly didn’t really believe what he saw.
Raven kept focusing on the ring’s progress along the wire as she answered, “Yes, Elder.”
Judging by his intake of breath Elder Willow took the confirmation hard, and even took a few step forward so make sure he wasn’t imagining things.
“Why?” he questioned once closer. By now the rest of the class had stopped their progress and looked over at Raven and the Elder.
“Elder Willow did not use a bind when he demonstrated.”
“But, that’s . . . ,” Raven’s words were so matter-of-fact that Elder Willow was stunned for a moment. Was this kid serious? He had truly not used a bound ring to demonstrate with before, but doing the exercise without it was at least ten times harder!
Raven had of course realized this difference the second she tried it but she felt that training as she did now would be more beneficial for her understanding to the Spacial Dash. Besides, she would have preferred the low profile of a slow progress anyway.
Elder Willow seemed to gather himself. “Junior Night, please bind the ring again and complete the task before changing it,” he said sternly. His words might sound harsh but there was an underlying hint of excitement in the Elder’s voice; he was clearly looking forward to Raven’s results.
The rest of the students didn’t catch it though, and some of them sneered at the seemingly reprimanded Raven with renewed contempt. Others, like Martin and Regulus, rather conveyed pity instead. Only Lark glanced from Raven to Elder Willow with an odd expression, like he was pondering something.
“As the Elder mandates,” Raven’s voice was just as devoid of zeal as before and inwardly she felt a sense of capitulation; ‘I had hoped that he wouldn’t notice it; I’m going to cause a scene again . . . but I won’t benefit from my time at this Academy if I don’t push my limits somewhere!’
As Raven pulled back her spirit essence from the ring it snapped back to its starting point where Raven reconnected the blood link. She let the ring hover up and down for a few heartbeats to readjust to the new connection between it and her before she started moving it along the wire at a steady pace. Without a hitch the ring slid past the third bend that no one had made it past yet.
When she passed the fourth bend with ease, the mocking smiles had stiffened while the looks of pity had turned to excitement; Martin even raised his hand to give Raven an approving slap on the back, but Lark was quick to stop him.
“So much for a fake . . .” giggled some of the girls and glanced at Robin insinuatingly.
Ignoring all of this Raven’s spirit essence sphere with ring kept moving – the progress was noticeably slower than when Elder Willow had demonstrated but the movement was steady and showed no signs of Raven losing control. Not even when she reached a section of the wire maze that was out of her sight did the ring falter.
Fifty eight seconds after Raven had started, the light cling of the metal ring hitting the crystal blocker at the other end of the maze broke the silence that had transcended the training area.
Raven turned around on the ground and looked up at the Elder. “May I remove the bond now, Elder Willow?,” she asked.
Hundreds of meters above Sky Academy, a white little bird was perched on the windowsill located at the very top of Indigo Cloud Palace’s highest tower. The small bird had been sitting there for almost an entire day as it quietly observed the world within.
Its unnaturally big, brown, eyes had watched when the woman on the other side of the window glass spent hours pacing back and forth the previous evening. It had watched as the woman cried in silence when she was alone but then smiled strongly in front of her beloved. It had watched when she argued with her spy masters for hours on end.
Although the bird’s presence hadn’t gone entirely unnoticed, nobody payed it any heed; it was, after all, only a bird.
With an expression that by no means revealed her satisfaction, Raven walked away from her first spirit control lesson with 200 merit points registered on her identification stone. She wasn’t one to bother with the opinions of random children but the bewildered expressions of Robin and the rest of the “he’s a fake” gang had been most gratifying, even for her.
What pleased her most, however, was that after another hour of practicing, Raven’s spirit control had actually showed signs of improvement. She had yet to complete the course while not using the connection with the ring, but now she could at least manage a third of it before exhaustion forced her to lose control.
Martin and Lark had “volunteered” to help Elder Willow bring back the crate of boxes, so at the moment Raven walked alone down the splendid garden that separated the main campus from the Starlight wood houses, where the Elders and Advanced Students resided. Well ‘alone’ wasn’t really accurate; there were plenty of students spread out over the entire garden, whom were currently either quietly cultivating through meditation or sparring with fellow students.
‘I see gossip travels fast here too. . . .’
Just as before, no one approached Raven and preferred to observe from a distance as she passed, but the students no longer feigned ignorance of her existence. Instead, they would pause their training to whisper comments to each other, or simply stare at her for a moment. The expressions in their eyes varied from disgust to awe and occasionally even some fear.
The rumors of Raven the Thieving Slave, whom merely had a fake cultivation and secretly reveled in death, had clearly reached everyone present, but so had her results from the previous class as well as the new Spirit Hall Tower record she’d set. The poor students didn’t know what to believe anymore.
‘Well, they are not so far off on the death thing,’ she thought to herself.
Suddenly, Raven felt the presence of a familiar high Champion enter the far end of the garden, heading her way. After a moment of internal debate, Raven slowed her pace, as if taking in the wonders of the garden, thus allowing the Elder in question to catch up without even trying.
“Junior Student Night,” the friendly voice of Vice Headmaster Gadwall called out to Raven. “If you tarry in the gardens too long then you’ll be late for class.”
Raven’s body twitched slightly, as if startled, before she turned and bowed. “Vice Gadwall”, she said in a cold tone before she straightened and looked up at him with equally cold eyes.
The man might not be as astute as Raven but didn’t miss her cold attitude. The curious light in his eyes dimmed and was replaced with concern as he asked, “is something wrong, Junior Night? Did you have any troubles picking out Divine Skills this morning?”
Raven almost laughed at the irony of his assumption, but her face showed no traces of humor. “No, Vice Gadwall, I had no problems at the library.”
“Then what is the matter?” Gadwall’s eyes then suddenly shined with realization, “oh, I see, the rumors about your past . . . yes, it’s quite unfortunate . . . but all of it will be forgotten in a few days, I’m sure.” He smiled warmly and reached out a hand to pat Raven’s shoulder, but she stepped out of his reach.
“With all due respect, I would have preferred it if Vice Gadwall, Headmaster Swan and Elder Kagu had kept my past to yourselves.”
Gadwall’s brows furrowed. “I can assure you that it did, Junior Night; such secrets are not for us to tell! Perhaps . . . perhaps, your Uncles had a bit much to drink, while celebrating and. . .” he didn’t finish the sentence but there was no need to.
Raven’s cold glare seemed to soften slightly; “perhaps . . . ,” she agreed with a sigh. Inwardly, however, she couldn’t agree less. ‘No matter how drunk they are, they would never say a word. . . . But if Gadwall is right, then how did it come out?’
“Well then,” taking Raven’s reaction as a sign that the matter was settled, Gadwall motioned towards the south; “I believe we are headed the same way.”
A few minutes later, with the guidance of Vice Gadwall, Raven arrived at the tall building where the advanced classes were being held. Along the way, Raven had found out that the ordinary teacher for the Advanced Class was ‘otherwise preoccupied’ at the moment so Gadwall would be stepping in as their adviser for a few days. She had also learnt that unless the Elder in charge had something special planned, the Advanced Class mostly consisted of individual training but under highly beneficial conditions. It was for this reason he had wanted Raven to pick out at least one Divine Skill before today’s lesson.
Once inside, they were greeted by thirteen youngsters, of varying age and cultivation. Had any of them had the same perception as Raven, they would have been unable to miss the bloodthirsty aura that whiffed out into the room as soon as Raven laid eyes on her cousin.
Dunlin had been standing with his back towards the entrance, talking to the black haired Jack Tanuki of Earth Empire, but turned around at the sound of the doors opening.
For a brief moment, the gazes of the two cousins met.
Raven had pondered if he, one of only two people still alive and well whom had actually seen her face – albeit when she was only a toddler – would be able to recognize her, but Dunlin’s gaze simply turned contemptuous before he looked away with ill-feigned indifference.